Nfl '99

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September 10, 1999

East

Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 9-7, second. Lost divisional playoff game at Minnesota, 41-21.

Coach: Vince Tobin (20-28), fourth season with Cardinals.

Strength of schedule: Tie for fourth.

Starting quarterback: Jake Plummer (12-13).

Best move: Drafting WR David Boston and OT L.J. Shelton with first-round picks, further enhancing Plummer's passing game. Not signing Shelton early negated that move, however.

Toughest call: Letting OT Lomas Brown, LB Jamir Miller and FB Larry Centers go in free agency for salary-cap considerations. All three were leaders on the team and the void will not easily be filled.

Pressure's on: Plummer after his four-year, $29.7 million contract extension last season that included a $15 million signing bonus. That bonus is part of the reason the valued veterans above were let go.

Biggest question: Can DT Eric Swann return as a dominant force after two surgeries on his arthritic right knee?

Key statistic: In what has become an ominous trend for the Cardinals, three times in this decade they have had the last unsigned, first-round choice in the draft -- Garrison Hearst in 1993, Miller in 1994 and Andre Wadsworth in 1998.

Ticket to Atlanta: An upgraded scheduled, their penny-pinching ways and the loss of key players probably will knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys

Last season: 10-6, first. Lost wild-card game to Arizona, 20-7.

Coach: Chan Gailey (10-6), second season with Cowboys.

Strength of schedule: 12th.

Starting quarterback: Troy Aikman (83-57).

Best move: Signing WR Rocket Ismail and C Mark Stepnoski in free agency. Ismail should give the Cowboys the speed receiver they need to stretch defenses, and Stepnoski, returning after four seasons with the Oilers, bolsters a shuffled offensive line.

Toughest call: Not drafting a defensive tackle when they knew Leon Lett was headed for another substance-abuse suspension. They wanted DT Anthony McFarland, but when he went to Tampa Bay with the 15th pick, the Cowboys didn't address a glaring need.

Pressure's on: WR Michael Irvin, who's in the final year of his contract. Irvin, 33, has lost a step and no longer is allowed to get away with pushing off. He had only one TD catch last season.

Biggest question: How long will CB-KR Deion Sanders be out with his toe injury?

Key statistic: Gailey had the Cowboys averaging 27 points a game the first 12 games last season. They averaged just 12.6 points the last five games, counting the playoff loss.

Ticket to Atlanta: Everything has to break right for a Super Bowl run. Not likely.

New York Giants

Last season: 8-8, third.

Coach: Jim Fassel (18-13-1), third season with Giants.

Strength of schedule: Tie for 25th.

Starting quarterback: Kent Graham (10-14).

Best move: Locking up DE Michael Strahan (four years, $32 million) and LB Jessie Armstead (seven years, $33 million) to long-term deals. That keeps the heart of the defense intact and keeps the Giants competitive.

Toughest call: Signing QB Kerry Collins to a four-year, $16.9 million contract with a $4.8 million signing bonus. The Saints, with little else at quuarterback, didn't bother to make an offer after catching his act in seven games last season.

Pressure's on: DE Cedric Jones, the fifth pick in the 1996 draft who has been a major bust. This figures to be his last chance in New York, where he's expected to replace Chad Bratzke (11.5 sacks) at right end. He will quickly become a target on defense.

Biggest question: What happens to Collins if Graham, who has his teammates' confidence, continues to play at a winning level?

Key statistic: The Giants' fall from grace in 1998 was attributable in part to a slide from plus-25 in turnover ratio to minus-two.

Ticket to Atlanta: The Giants are an intriguing team with lots of options, playing in a weak division. The playoffs are in reach, but the Super Bowl is a stretch.

Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 3-13, fifth.

Coach: Andy Reid (0-0), first season with Eagles.

Strength of schedule: 28th.

Starting quarterback: Doug Pederson (0-0).

Best move: Bringing in former Pittsburgh executive Tom Modrak to clean up this mess as director of football operations was the best move of the Jeff Lurie era. Modrak has the road map to the playoffs.

Toughest call: Picking QB Donovan McNabb over RB Ricky Williams with the second pick of the draft. Blue-collar Philadelphia fans wanted Williams and a running game; Modrak and Reid wanted a franchise quarterback who lasts longer.

Pressure's on: Pederson, who has played in 21 NFL games in four seasons, started none and thrown a total of 32 passes. His first-team offense never reached the end zone in the preseason. And he's got McNabb looking over his shoulder.

Biggest question: Was Reid the best choice for this situation or the cheapest option? He's the only NFL head coach who's never been a head coach or coordinator in the league. He learned in a good system (Greeen Bay) with the best quarterback.

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